Evaluating talent in the minors may be one of the toughest tasks in professional sports. There are a multitude of variables that scouts and evaluators must decipher and decode, whether it is projecting growth or looking at the current tools of a player. In the minors, statistics are further from relevancy, as many of the situations and scenarios that a player is placed in often skew the numbers.
A pitcher may face an entire lineup full of org hitters, or guys that never make the majors. A hitter might face an entire staff full of org pitchers. Can we correlate these statistical success rates into meaningful data? To an extent, but many teams likely do not care what Player X hit against Org Pitcher Y. At the end of the day, the correlation between statistics and scouting in the minors is a difficult task. As we head into the mid-section of July, the Orioles have a few players that are hitting very well. The question is, are these players simply a creation of poor minor league competition?
I have always been interested in the interplay between statistics in the minor leagues and scouting. So much of major league evaluation is statistically based, that intuitively (to some/many) minor league statistics should play a role in player evaluation. I would include an earlier version of myself in that camp. With little to no information about players, an untrained scouting eye, and the only readily accessible information being statisitics, it was the easiest way for me to learn as much as I could about the minors. However, as you say, the minors brings along a multitude of different variables that the major leagues just don’t ever have to deal with. Bad fields, bad defense, odd parks, all of these are magnified in the minor leagues. Also, much like Spring Training (and nearly everyone ignores those stats) players can be working on a particular aspect of their game to the detriment of their overall statistical performance but critical to their development. So the quandary that always plays out in my mind is how to look at the statistics and how to evaluate a player with an untrained scouting eye.
To answer your question I guess I have a question for a scout. Why does a player like Christian Walker seemingly get little to no credit from you and others about his increase in power production this year? Or why does a player like Buck Britton, a guy who crushed AA and is holding his own in AAA, (alongside his positional versatility which I adore to no end) essentially get tabbed as an org guy? And on the flip side why does a guy like Parker Bridwell continually get love when he basically has never strung together a statistically successful season? Where is the disconnect occurring between the statistical evaluation for those guys and the scouting evaluation for those guys?
Christian Walker has always shown an ability to make contact and get on base, dating back to his days at SC. The question has always been whether the power would correlate to major league pitching. I think there has been a common misconception on my general thoughts regarding Walker, seemingly because I have not vaulted him into discussion this season with other Orioles’ prospects. However, Walker has certainly improved in some aspects this season, mainly in fitness and shape. He is in better shape this season, and the bat speed has very slightly improved. This is usually rare in a player, but it can happen. He is a better hitter now, but I still do not believe he is an impact player. I have seen nearly half of Walker’s home runs this season, and most of them have come against pitchers I would tag as an organization player. These are pitchers either with poor stuff, or their skill set will not correlate to the highest level. Against some of the toughest competition thrown at Walker (Corey Knebel, for example), he has not shown the same skill-set. Now, a player can grow and refine once they start facing that better competition on a consistent basis, but for now I do not see it. I also believe Walker is a first base prospect only, which means he will certainly need to hit and hit for power (to be anything more than a second division type). Walker could improve more, but I think this is a bench bat with the potential to turn into a second division player. Valuable, but not an impact guy.
Buck Britton is an intriguing player. Like you said, he has versatility and can play all around the diamond. I like that in a player, but being a jack of all trades and master of none can be a detriment as well. Britton is an average defender overall but below-average on the left side from my experiences watching him. The swing is short and compact, but the bat is also hollow. What I mean by that is there is not a lot of pop or impact in the swing. He’s mostly a singles and doubles hitter that will occasionally run into one. Also, at 28 years old, Britton is at the point where he has an adept knowledge of the competition level at AA and AAA. Some may rolls their eyes at that, but it matters and does make a difference. It’s also the reason why we aren’t discussing Michael Burgess and his terrific season at High-A Frederick. Burgess is 25.
Parker Bridwell is the most interesting case of all. I have scouted Bridwell multiple times this season, including reports at Baseball Prospectus from 5/30/2014 and 6/9/2014. The growth I have seen from Bridwell this season has been substantial, with the changeup really turning the corner and becoming a formidable offering. With Bridwell, it has always been a battle for consistency. When at his best, Bridwell has filthy stuff that could match up against many other top-end arms. However, with the good comes the bad and ugly. Bridwell will throw some duds throughout the season as well, and has generally lacked the consistency necessary to put up solid numbers in the minors. This is why I am still high on Bridwell, even if the numbers are mediocre at best.
In reality, statistics at the minor league level are largely dependent on how you use them. Certain statistics work, but does it really help to evaluate a player based on how many strikeouts they racked up against a lineup consisting fully of organizational talent? Does it really make sense to judge a hitter that just received 20 AB over a series against 8 org arms? The answer is no, and this is why statistics in the minors need to be carefully used. Certain aspects can be applied to the overall picture, but there is a lot of noise in the statistics in general.
Yeah, my mindset these days more is to read scouting reports and look at certain statistics to determine some level of confidence in a player. The statistics I focus on for hitters are strike outs, walks, and sometimes power numbers. I think those can give you an idea of what type of hitter a player is regardless of level. They tell you something about a hitter’s approach, contact skills, and power ability. For pitchers, I again focus on strike outs and walks. I think this tells you how a pitcher is able to command and control his pitches and to an extent how his stuff plays.
However, as clearly stated by you, each player is almost a case by case basis. I think this why comps can be frustrating for some in the scouting community, because they can often be too lazy and hastily made. The minors have such a wide variety of variables and outcomes that certain players may stick out at a level because they have a certain skill set. Yet, that skill set will never play at the major league level where the variables and outcomes are pressed inward and the players that had success in the minors, but do not have the tools for the majors, get left at the margins.
Walker has AA power, but he will have to prove he even has AAA power and then MLB power. The power is not evident when scouting him and the statistical noise that even AA can produce make his minor league statistics–even power ones–less helpful than power numbers at the higher levels. Buck Britton is old for the minors, as you stated, and if you want to be a successful major league player you better get there young. It is a simple, yet frustrating and depressing, fact about baseball that age matters. Young players that make the majors are simply more likely to become valuable productive players. The more one toils in the minors, the less likely they are to be of any impact. As Luke and you discussed on one of the pod casts, age may be the most important number for any minor leaguer. And lastly Bridwell, he is a player that I have always found frustrating. I get the org guys that can post numbers and be successful because they can do one thing really well that simply will not play at the higher level. What I cannot seem to wrap my head around is why guys like Bridwell, who post mediocre numbers continually get high accolades in scouting reports. He is now 23 in High-A, he is reaching a point where his age is going to hinder him as a prospect. The tools are there and even the development seems like it is there, but at what point do results matter? Never? Should he keep being mentioned in the upper echelon of Orioles prospects if he has not been able to post an ERA under 4 in four seasons?
I think the most important aspect of scouting the minors is the fact that development is never linear. When I first started evaluating talent, a scout that I trust greatly said that to me. He mentioned how a player can go through rough patches and they often need to fail before reaching their OFP. I think Bridwell is the best case of this. I don’t think the Orioles have another player in their system that has failed so much, yet still gains accolades across the scouting community. I have been a big fan of Bridwell for a long time, even with the knowledge that the inherent risk is high. The numbers begin to matter eventually, but with Bridwell, we need to remember he has not always been completely focused on pitching until his time with the Orioles. His career path has not been the linear progression that we typically see out of prospects. He could still end up flaming out and never reaching the majors, but the projection is evident and if he can continue refinement it will be a solid arm.
Scouting is very difficult, and it is the reason why the men in the shadows doing the dirty work deserve more credit than anyone. Scouts do not get the credit they deserve, and they deal with such an unknown industry, where all they can trust are their eyes. The statistics can often deceive us, and I generally think this is why we see players that did not perform well in the minors end up performing in the majors. Remember, Manny Machado‘s stats in the minors were actually not ridiculously impressive. I don’t think we will find many people that would argue he is not a talented player.